Circulation of 'Standard' 'soars' at the speed of Lite

It is boasting a 'huge' year-on-year increase. But it's the 75,000 freebies that are really boosting the paper's figures
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The Independent Online

The latest circulation announcement from London's evening paper was a classic of its genre. "Evening Standard circulation soars by almost 10 per cent," read the headline on a press release on Friday.

The latest circulation announcement from London's evening paper was a classic of its genre. "Evening Standard circulation soars by almost 10 per cent," read the headline on a press release on Friday.

Celebrating a "huge" 9.8 per cent year-on-year increase, MD Mike Anderson said: "More people are reading more copies of the Standard every day."

All this is true - if you select your numbers very carefully. But so are the following, perhaps more pertinent, facts.

Last month, 348,892 people on average picked up a copy of the 40p Evening Standard every day. In May 2004, the corresponding figure was 387,609. In other words, 10 per cent fewer copies were sold last month than a year ago.

So 10 per cent up, or 10 per cent down? Which is right?

Both. The gap is explained by Standard Lite, the free lunchtime edition of the paper which was launched six months ago this week. Every day, on top of the 350,000-odd paid-for papers, the Standard gives away around 75,000 copies of its freebie. And that total - roughly 425,000 - is indeed 10 per cent higher than the number of Standard sales a year ago. (It would only be a ghastly pedant who pointed out that more than 30,000 of the so-called paid-for papers are given away each day on trains and planes).

And to put these figures into a historical perspective, just four years ago the Standard was selling - not giving away - around the same number of its papers as the combined total today of the Evening Standard and its free cousin.

That decline in paid-for sales explains why Lite was launched in the first place. In this internet and Ipod age, the trend in newspaper sales, with one or two exceptions, is awful. The decline in evening papers is worse still. So Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Standard, knew it had to do something.

This was only made more urgent by the prospect of Richard Desmond or Rupert Murdoch launching their own free London newspaper - within two years there will be at least one new title on the Underground, perhaps more.

When Lite launched, journalists on the Standard feared that the new title would kill off the main paper. In fact, the figures suggest that sales of the main paper are almost exactly where they were when Lite was launched.

Six months on, the feeling among staff is less gloomy. An insider explains: "In the office 2004 was ghastly - circulation took a massive dive, there were big cutbacks, loads of people left. Then when Lite launched, it was really feared. But now it is being accepted as a rather good defensive measure. We have to keep an eagle eye on it, but while it is in its current form, it doesn't look like a major threat to the main paper."

Another senior staffer adds: "I think the mood is a little lighter these days. Though I personally am as pissed off as ever. And they've just launched another purge on expenses and freelancers."

Meanwhile, what of the Standard's editorial content? With Lite aimed at those commuters who do not traditionally buy a paper, it was argued that the main paper would be able to nudge itself upmarket as a premium product. Senior executives say that, indeed, is what has happened.

If that is the case, such a move has gone largely unnoticed among staff. To which a senior executive responds enigmatically: "We have moved slightly upmarket. But that is not to say that where we are now, is where we will end up. It's only been six months. We are still in the experimental stage."

Peter Cole returns next week

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